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38th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett - Lech am Arlberg (AUT) 1994

Start: Lech am Arlberg – Schmelzhofwiesen on September 18th from 05:00 a.m.   

From the Book: Die Gordon Bennett Ballon Rennen
(The Gordon Bennett Races) by Ulrich Hohmann Sr

With the victory of the team Starkbaum/Röhsler in 1993 the hosting of the race 1994 had returned to Austria. The municipality of Lech am Arlberg, venue already in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and thus equipped with enough experience, had spontaneously declared also to be prepared for 1994. Lech am Arlberg is in a high mountain region, starts at night in the high mountains are not without their problems, which often leads to the fact, that nations with little experience in gas ballooning like France, Australia, Sweden, Japan, Canada or Great Britain do not take part in the race for safety reasons. But nothing can be done. The rules lay down the hosting in the country of last year’s winner and Austria simply is a country in the mountains with little alternatives.

From the beginning, the race was ill starred, it really didn’t look nice. Already when traveling there on Thursday, the competitors had to fight with thunderstorms, hail and torrential rain. During the night to Friday, Lech am Arlberg experienced the first snowfall that autumn. Not heavy enough, to open the ski lifts, but the mountains all around were quite "sugared". The mood was correspondingly lousy. The meteorologist, Dr. Herbert Pümpel, later stated, that he had been close to cancel the race. Occasional brightening was observed, but all in all Saturday also brought no significant improvement of the weather.

Had there been a cancellation of the race before? – No, but twice a postponement, but only one for weather reasons. – What would happen, if a race was cancelled? Or, to be more precise: Would the winner of the last year keep the cup for another year? – Yes, according to the rules of 1905, but old Gordon Bennett had only declared acts of God as reasons for cancellation.

Whatever he may have meant with that, bad weather was not an act of God in those years, when balloons flew at any kind of weather. Otherwise, there would not have been five people killed in the race of the year 1923. So should the year 1994 enter the history of the races as the first year of a cancellation for weather reasons?

When studying the charts and prognoses, Dr. Pümpel discovered a "window". Just very small and at an impossible moment, but it should come for sure. In a word, launch began Sunday morning at 5 a.m. The last balloon just took off at dawn break. So in this connection, the 38th Gordon Bennett Race is something new. Never before a race was launched at this time of the day. The national anthems played for the fire brigade and the Red Cross as the only spectators did not create a solemn atmosphere. Those who remained on the field waved a quick "good flight and soft landings" to the crews and rushed back to the hotel to warm up. At the launch field at that time, several degrees below the freezing point were measured.

The theory for the flight, as created by the meteorologist, was quite clear, but unfortunately did not come true: Snow covered hill slopes make the air sinking, this air meets the warmer river Lech in the valley, who will take it with him pushing the balloons out of the mountains at Füssen. Here, they will meet the gradient winds of the low pressure area "Iphigenie", which there, supported by the Alps as buffer, turn from northwest via west to southeast, driving the balloons across Germany to Poland. Terminal station then would have been the Baltic Sea.

The first half of this theory came true. About five hours after launch, all balloons were at the upper end of the valley of river Lech, but already there, they were no longer on the north side of the valley, but much farther south. Obviously, St. Peter had opened the "window" a little too wide, no cold airflow moved to the valley any longer, the slopes were in bright sunlight, and now it became accordingly thermal. The ridge of the North-Tyrolean Chalk-Alps was crossed, now they were in the much more narrow valley of the Inn, and further on in their heading to the east, higher obstacles were threatening. In the lee of the mountains, the balloons proceeded very slowly. One pilot even reported: "Stand up party over Innsbruck".

Logically the first landing reports came in from the valley of the Inn at about 2 p.m. During the afternoon, four other crews also landed. Their landing spots were all still in Austria, the longer they flew, the more to the south. The gradient winds did not think of turning.

Another four competitors preferred to land before midnight, already being across the border to Italy. For the rest of the balloons, the real first night began, and the higher they climbed, the farther they proceeded south. It moved quite quickly up there, and soon they could see the Gulf of Genoa and the Mediterranean Sea ahead of them. The more easterly the balloons were, the more the could proceed into the upper leg of the "Italian boot." But the sea itself was a barrier difficult to cross.

Two balloons had given up to decreasingly slow flight quite early: Joschi Starkbaum, the serial winner and Karl Spenger, taciturn experienced war-horse. Both soon had gained altitude, entering the southerly drift quickly, and already approaching the sea when all the others were still in the mountains. Joschi Starkbaum and his son Roland as co-pilot stood in front of the shore at 4 a.m. and landed at this time near Genoa.

Karl Spenger and Christian Stoll flew on in the direction to Corsica. 69-year-old Karl Spenger wanted to know it once again, 10 years after his victory in Zurich. With an experience from 12 Gordon Bennett Races and many other long distance flights, he could assess the risk. He scratched the island of Corsica, direction Sardinia. (He might also have accepted Sicily or North Africa). At Monday noon, he had reached the west coast of the island in the North, over flew the island until the Thyrrenic Sea in the east became visible. At 3:20 p.m. (local) the balloon touched ground at Jerzu on Sardinia, 825.14 kilometers from Lech am Arlberg as the bee flies, nearly 450 kilometers more that rank second, who had covered 375.74 kilometers and landed just 5 hours before.

At the awards banquet next Friday, Karl Spenger confessed, that crossing the sea had been discussed and agreed between the two crewmembers already before take-off. A brand new envelope and a lightweight net of the balloon created the conditions for that. Those two pilots would not have cared, if the water ahead to fly over would be the Baltic or the Mediterranean Sea.

You have to recall far back in the history of these races, to find a similar superior victory with more than double the distance between rank 1 and 2: Theo Schaeck/Emil Messner from Switzerland in 1908 and in 1925 Belgians Alexander Veenstra/Philippe Quersin. In both cases, the enormous distance was created by a flight across the sea. In 1908 it was the North Sea, in 1925 the Gulf of Biscay, and now in 1994 the Mediterranean Sea.

And there is another curiosity: Switzerland gains its fourth victory in a Gordon Bennett Race this year. Three of them (1908, 1922 and 1994) came into being with after flights across the sea, only Karl Spenger's first victory in 1984 (with Martin Messner as co-pilot) ended without a crossing, but on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

What had happened to the other crews? The coast of the province Liguria in Italy is not very rich with landing fields. You have to take, what you may get. Silvia Wagner/Thomas Lewetz considered a hill slope full of trees to be adequate. The trees swallowed the balloon, but without a single tear, the envelope came to the ground. But it was impossible, to pick it up there, even with an off-road vehicle. So one part of the chase crew organized a helicopter mission, while the rest sat down next to the balloon for a picnic. There was enough left to eat and drink. During the flight, Silvia is responsible in the basket for preparing the meals, but she herself is unable to eat a single mouthful.

After three hours, the helicopter came and found the balloon guided by radio from the ground. Carefully the helicopter then pulled the whole stuff past the treetops to a free place.

Joschi Starkbaum and his son Roland did not need help from the air, but had to use a heavyweight Caterpillar tractor. So the chase crew presented to Joschi a toy model of the same type as a souvenir, which now shall get a dignified place in his collection of cups. Some excitement was created by a rashly triggered search and rescue action, caused by the upcoming rumour, that the crew Fürstner/Huber was seen over the Gulf of Genoa. Even if "too soon and unnecessary" is always better as "too late and without success", such actions should better be coordinated with the competition officials.

So finally, everybody came back to the ground safe and unhurt, the race of 1994 ended without further problems.

In 1995 the 39th Gordon Bennett Race will therefore be held in Switzerland, country of the actual winner, perhaps in Wil on September 9th. All races in this country had always been perfectly organized and outstandingly performed. It will be the 6th race from Switzerland, after Zurich 1909, Geneva 1922, Basel 1932, Zurich 1984 and again Geneva in 1985. Something, stormy low pressure area "Iphigenie" had almost prevented ended with an unusual success.

Before we let the winners report from their flight by themselves, they should be introduced. Erwin A. Sautter answers the question: "Who are the balloonists Spenger/Stoll"?

Today pretending to be "retired", Karl Spenger from Wil (SG), born December 26th, 1925 is a successful businessman in electrics, who became involved in ballooning by Alfred Nater (Bazenheide SG). With more than 3300 hours in the willow basket, the aeronaut from the "Fürstenland" region, who there established his own filling station for gas balloons at Bronschhofen and started developing lighter envelopes and baskets, is one of the captains in gas ballooning with literally most of experience.

For his researches on improving the technique of building balloons, the FAI rewarded Spenger with the Tissandier Diploma in 1970. Since 1983 he wasn’t missing at any Gordon Bennett Race, winning in 1984 (co Martin Messner) and 1994 (with Christian Stoll); also the Spenger team was rewarded with the silver medal (1986; 1987) and bronze (1985; 1990) twice each.

Before the flight from Lech, "inventor" Spenger tested his new HB-BZH on a night flight of 19 hours and more than 780 kilometers between Bronschhofen near Wil (SG) and Kulcs/Dunaujvaros in Hungary on August 16th and 17th, from where the crew then returned "relieved" of their instruments, radios, boots and jackets.

This was followed by two flights within the 33rd International High Alpine Ballooning Week at Mürren (Grand Prix Schilthorn) from Stechelberg (August 30th and September 5th) with landings at Kleinreifling in Austria and near Arbizzano in Italy. The new "Model Spenger" of 1050 m³ had stood its tests and captain K.S. was well prepared for a big race from Lech am Arlberg.

Gardener, balloonist and doctor of natural sciences Christian Stoll from Münchenstein in the Basel area, born may 8th, 1945, started in his first Gordon Bennett Race as co pilot of Fröhlin from Bregenz in 1988, to change to the basket of Karl Spenger in 1990 to win the cup in 1994 with the flight to Jerzu on Sardinia.

The bio-technologist from Basel came to ballooning by Dr. Rolf Gross (1921 – 1994) and won the Grand Prix Schilthorn several times. In 1994 Stoll was elected successor to retired hotel manager Ruedi Meyer from Mürren as president of the international Spelterini-society.

Here now is an extract from the flight report of Spenger/Stoll about the "Altitude safari from Lech (Austria) to Jerzu (Sardinia)", summarized and commented by Erwin A. Sautter.

When Karl Spenger, aged 69, and Christian Stoll, aged 49, prepared for a rip-out landing after a flight of 31 hours in the carefully equipped gondola of new HB-BZH (1050m³) above Jerzu (690 m above sea level) on the afternoon of September 19th, 1994 and then got stuck 30 meters beside a road on a row of rocks, they "were very happy to have landed on Sardinia". They had covered a detour from Lech am Arlberg to the east coast of this island in the Tyrrenic Sea with the north wind, which to use was urgently advised against before launch: "Stay clear of the South; no wind in the Alps, bad weather on their south slopes."

Perhaps Spenger/Stoll remembered the forecasts of the Swiss meteorologists: "The weekend will be gray north of the Alps. Occasional rain, more on Saturday than on Sunday and more on the north slope of the Alps than in the plains. Only in the Valise and on the south slope of the Alps weather starts already improving on Saturday and also on Sunday it will be dry and at least occasional sunny there. On Monday a high-pressure ridge will cross our country to the east. (Tages-Anzeiger September 17th 1994)

Anyhow, after a good breakfast and a marvel at the freshly snow covered mountains at the valley of Bischabel, co-pilot Stoll remarked a turn of winds of nearly 80 degrees: "We turn into the mountains, not bad, the South seems better as forecasted". Zurich ACC-supervisor Roland Altenburger knew the position of HB-BZH at 15:30 over Val Venosta north of the Stilfserjochs. Spenger/Stoll on their way to Rome?

At midnight the crew is in 12.000 feet above Milan: "We cross the brightly illuminated city of Milano, directly above the central station, wonderful, from time to time fireworks and a laser-show". At witching hour the gardener from Münchenstein quotes the folk song "Dear moon, you move so quiet..." Magic of ballooning. But then the question of the navigator: "Direction of southern France or Spain? " Later, at 3:50 a.m.: Corsica?"

At 4:00 a.m. it sounds: "Every hand on deck": HB-BZH falls with 3 meters per second towards the coast at the Gulf of Genoa down to 870 meters above sea and has to make see reason by sacrifices of sand. Three hours later the two aeronauts know: "We will fly to Corsica, Sardinia or even Africa." At 9:05 a.m. this entering can be found: "Runway in sight, Ajaccio? We navigate using the great scale Jeppsen-map, no problem." At 11:00 a.m.: We fly directly in the direction of Sardinia. Who else may still be in the air and where are they?" (At that time, Austrian mixed-crew Wagner/Lewetz and German Eimers/Landsmann had not landed).

On 5.800 meters above the independent region of Sardinia – half as big as Switzerland – first observations about possible landing spots on this island, already visited by Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, are made, like: "Sardinia is unique and wonderful, very barren, rocky and almost uninhabited in the higher regions." The aeronauts would become right. Meanwhile, the controller at Cagliari insists in a quick descent. On 2.700 meters, they manage to stabilize and looking for green, harvested meadows start.

Then everything comes quick: "The wind pushes us towards a little row of rocks, where we stand safely about 30 meters from the road. The rip-out panel is on the wrong side and the flying wires get caught in the rocks. But soon spectators and helpers are in this abandoned area, they had seen us from the little town of Jerzu. We are extremely happy, that we landed on Sardinia."

Jerzu (422 m) is about 10 kilometers south of Lanusei, agricultural center of the region of Ogliastra, and not far from the ferry harbor of Arbatax, from where boats leave for Olbia und Genoa. Jerzu, a little village on the slopes of the Pizzo Corongiu (1008 m) was mentioned in no guidebook till today; by the landing of HB-BZH on September 19th 1994 in this deserted area, "where silence talks" (dove parla il silenzio) the village became a focal point in aeronautics.

  • Jerzu will enter the history of the Gordon Bennett Races like all the other landing spots of winning balloons – from Flying-Dales to Campbellsport. In the aeronautic society in Switzerland Jerzu will stand besides Bergset (Norway), Lambay Island (Ireland) and La Rochelle (France) as a new sign of outstanding craftsmanship in ballooning, which is not yet honored.
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